Two Florida CVS pharmacies ordered more than 3 million oxycodone pills in 2011, more than 20 times higher than the national average, DEA agents said Monday.
As part of a crackdown on rampant painkiller abuse in Florida, the Drug Enforcement Administration charged a major health care company and the two CVS pharmacies in Sanford, Fla., with violating their licenses to sell the powerful pain pills and other drugs.
"It's a tremendous amount, way beyond what would be for legitimate use," said Mark Trouville, DEA special agent in charge of the Miami Field Division. "We're not talking about a gray area here."
The average pharmacy in the United States ordered about 69,000 oxycodone pills in 2011, the DEA said. The two CVS pharmacies, located less than 6 miles apart, ordered 3 million.
It is the first time the DEA has suspended the license of a chain pharmacy in Florida for its alleged role in the state's prescription drug abuse problem, Trouville said. The DEA had previously targeted pain clinics known as "pill mills" where rogue doctors prescribe thousands of pain pills with only cursory examinations.
"This is absolutely not the end of this investigation," Trouville said. "We knew when we hit the pill mills that pharmacies would be the next issue. We just didn't know chain pharmacies would get into it."
CVS said it took steps with DEA's knowledge to stop filling prescriptions from doctors thought to be prescribing improperly.
"We informed a small number of Florida physicians that CVS/pharmacy will no longer fill the prescriptions they write for Schedule II narcotics," spokeswoman Carolyn Castel said in a written statement. "Distributions of oxycodone to the two Florida stores have decreased by approximately 80% in the last three months compared to the prior three months - we believe in large part due to our action."
On Friday, the DEA on suspended Cardinal Health's controlled substances license at its Lakeland, Fla., distribution center after linking it to high-volume orders of pain pills to four Florida pharmacies, including the two in Sanford. The distribution center services 2,500 pharmacies in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
A federal judge temporarily halted the suspension after Cardinal said it would stop supplying the drugs to the four pharmacies. A hearing on the suspension order was set for Feb. 13 in Washington, D.C.
Cardinal CEO George Barrett called the DEA action a "drastic overreaction" and said the company has "extensive processes" to prevent diversion of its pharmaceuticals for illegitimate use. Cardinal's internal controls have flagged more than 160 pharmacies in Florida and 350 pharmacies nationwide for "suspicious order patterns," he said.
"The needs of pharmacies are varied, and higher volumes can be appropriate based on a number of factors, including pharmacy size, hours of operation, patient demographics, and proximity to hospital and surgery centers, nursing homes, cancer clinics and hospice providers," Cardinal said in a statement.
Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY